In the beginning, there was Pokémon Go. Then there was the wall-to-wall coverage of Pokémon Go. Now we’re in the backlash to the wall-to-wall coverage. This has all happened in, oh, about a week.
So this post comes at an inopportune time, perhaps. But I want to make a case for the importance of Pokémon Go — for why it should be covered. Five years from now, we’re likely to have moved on from Donald Trump’s weird run for the presidency. But we will live in a world suffused with things like Pokémon Go.
Full disclaimer: I haven’t downloaded the game to my phone, and I don’t plan to. But Pokémon Go came out of nowhere to blow away Tinder and rival Twitter for active users in about a week. It did that by leveraging a crude version of a technology that we all know will improve exponentially in the coming years.
That’s why it’s worth taking seriously. Pokémon Go is a harbinger of things to come. We are being warned. By Pikachu.
Pokémon Go is just the beginning
The backlash to Pokémon Go coverage is understandable. How can it be worth expending all this energy on some video game? But Pokémon Go isn’t really a game. It’s a new technology.
Venture capitalist Chris Dixon has a line I like. "The next big thing will start out looking like a toy," he says. Welp, Pokémon Go looks like a toy. Hell, it is a toy. But it’s also the first widespread, massive use case for augmented reality — even though it’s operating on smartphones that aren’t designed for AR. So what’s going to happen as the hardware improves, the software improves, and the architects learn to use these more immersive environments to addict us more fully?
About a year ago, I tried the Oculus VR, and it blew my mind. I had thought we were a long way from inventing virtual reality. But as I stood in a flat, bare room, only to have the headset flicker on and convince my body and brain I was teetering on the edge of a skyscraper, I learned I was wrong. As I jumped back, I realized we’d already invented VR. Now we’re just perfecting it, making it cheaper, better, more addictive.
How far are we until your VR life is far more interesting, far more pleasurable, than your real life? Not that far, I bet. Maybe 10 years. How far are we until your walk to work is better with augmented reality than without it? Well, Pokémon Go suggests we’re already there. I’m not much for sci-fi dystopias — I don’t think the robots will kill us all — but the world of Ready Player One, in which the future has devolved (or evolved) into people escaping a grim existence by living inside their VR consoles, seems perfectly plausible to me.
The easy analogy here is drugs. We know drugs are a cheap way for people unhappy, or unsatisfied, with this reality to escape to a (temporarily) more pleasurable one. We’ve stanched that by making most recreational drugs illegal. But VR and AR are a consumer technology. We don’t make consumer technologies illegal. We celebrate them, write stories about them, improve them. And so they get better, more addictive, more alluring.
And we’re doing this at a moment when a lot of people’s lives are pretty rough. Men are dropping out of the workforce. Opiate addiction is a genuine epidemic. Rates of suicide are shocking. Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president. Silicon Valley is funding research into a universal basic income to prepare for the day when robots take all the work. VR won’t have to be that good to be better than underemployment.
Augmented reality begins with Pokémon. It begins as a toy. But it won’t remain a toy. It’s going to become an industry, a constant, a coping mechanism, a way of life. It will change how we spend our time, how we compete for status, how we interact with our loved ones. It will change the behaviors we think of as normal — already we’re seeing Pokémon Go run into racism; it won’t be long until AR cuts across other fault lines in our society.
Technology is about to change how we live once again. That’s why Pokémon Go needs to be covered.